Update: 27.05.2015

Tourism in Sri Lanka: campaign calls for diligence in tourism

The Society for Threatened Peoples International (STPI) has addressed a campaign at Swiss travel companies asking them to live up to their duty of diligence concerning human rights in Sri Lanka. In its report «Schatten im Sonnenparadies – Tourismus und Menschenrechte in Sri Lanka» (Shadows in the Summer Paradise – Tourism and Human Rights in Sri Lanka), the organisation calls attention to systematic human rights violations as a result of developments in the country's tourism industry. After decades of civil war, the Sri Lanka government is at present trying hard to convey an image of a country that has returned to normality. In spite of human rights violations and expropriation of people, Sri Lanka is a very popular holiday destination for Swiss tourists.

Situation in Sri Lanka

According to the STPI report, tourism in Sri Lanka is currenly experiencing a veritable boom, with 1.5 million guests staying on the island in the Indian Ocean in 2014. The 20,097 Swiss tourists constituted the fifth biggest group of tourists from Western Europe.

But the island is not only an idyllic holiday destination for sun worshippers. In the political context of change, minimal human rights standards are sacrificed to touristic development. According to the STPI report the situation in the tourist regions they probed is alarming. For example, fishermen are denied access to the sea by hotels and holiday resorts which leads to serious risks for the economic sustenance of entire families and directly endangers the lives of more than 1,200 persons. In addition, expropriation is widespread and only a small number of people can live on revenues generated from tourism.

Tourism business in the hands of the military

Compared to the minimal influence on tourism by ordinary people the influence of the army on the tourist sector is disproportionally high. Although the war has ended some years ago, the military budget has continued to skyrocket and accounts for 16.6% of the forecasted budget expenditure in 2015, according to the STPI. A considerable part of this money is invested in tourism. Army, navy and air force have opened hotels all across the country, offering activities to tourists. According to an article in the Courrier newspaper of 9 April 2015, certain estates that are now used as tourist resorts by the military had been confiscated during the war. Since this land provides enormous income to the military due to tourism it is highly unlikely that the former owners will be allowed to reclaim their property. This is why several hundred Tamil families are carving out a miserable existence in camps although they would have a right to return to their property and houses.

Responsibility of tour operators

At the launch of the campaign in February 2015, the STPI pointed out that at least 21 Swiss travel companies and tour operators have hotels on offer in the three tourist regions investigated, Kalpitiya, Kuchchaveli and Passikudah. The organisation asks Swiss travel operators not to offer stays at hotels «which have been constructed on expropriated land, cut off the local fishermen population’s access to the sea, discriminate women or minorities or forbid or restrict the workforce’s possibility to organise itself in trade unions». In addition, the STPI asks the Swiss travel operators not to include hotels or other tourist activities provided by the military in their range of products «unless it has been proven that they are not built on illegally expropriated land or have been tainted by other human rights violation».

To the STPI, these requests are minimal standards to assure that Swiss travel companies and tour operators do not act as accomplices to systematic human rights violations in Sri Lanka. Drawing the attention to the provisions of the «Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights», the campaign underlines that the social responsibility of the companies also includes respect for human rights. Travel companies have to observe their duty of care concerning human rights and assure that their own activities and those of their local partners do not result in human rights violations.

The new government has to take steps

The STPI report also asks the new Sri Lanka government to improve its strategy in the tourism sector, to apply existing laws and regulations and to protect the general public and minorities better against all forms of human rights violations. With the election of Maithripala Sirisena as President, Sri Lanka has undergone an important change of political orientation in January 2015. The new government published a very promising election manifesto with regards to human rights. But it still needs to prove that it really wants to improve the human rights situation on the island

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